My PI recommended this book for our book club for July with stellar ratings. I tried to pick up a copy from my library, but all 23 available ebook copies were already checked out, so it seems most everybody else agrees!
I wasn’t sure what to expect as a premise just judging from the title: an elegy is a reflection on the dead right? Is he mourning the loss of the hillbilly way of life? And the subtitle specifies it as memoir. I also checked the Wikipedia page before diving in, and the reception section seems to indicate that it has some political critics in tangles: apparently, liberals aren’t happy that Vance seems to excuse poor whites too much for their problems, righting off the effects of racism and laziness.
When you start this book, it is absolutely frightening. Vance grew up in the 80s in Ohio, the progeny of hillbillies from Appalachian Kentucky. He documents cases of domestic violence, drug use, and neglect that would leave a child crippled for life. As a product of a stable family situation in a strong Mormon household, I haven’t witnessed such terrible conditions. Poverty looks terrible up front when you confront it so vividly. Through what he considers sheer luck, Vance was able to escape his background, eventually graduating from Yale with a law degree, and he has been able to share his story and thoughts on similar situations– be prepared for a whole lot of cussing, by the way. It’s completely unfiltered.
As the Wikipedia article mentioned, the controversial aspect of the book is that Vance makes poor white America human: instead of blaming them as awful, lazy human beings who are racist lazy trash who voted Trump in because they are idiots like the media tends to portray, you instead are given a chance to empathize with them. They have a culture and tradition that has been passed down. This comes with both pros, like a strong sense of honor, and cons, like violence and addiction. Vance attributes much of their problems to “learned helplessness”:
Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.
He attributes the real problem of the present-day conservative party to be a tendency to blame all the world’s problems on the government, rather than doing something about it: “It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” Now with Trump in power, the tables seem to have turned though.
In a similar assessment as Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed, Vance concludes that there is no magic governmental program that can solve all the problems of poor white America; it can only be solved internally by building strong communities, investing in local organizations and churches, and strong families. In this regard, there was a shout-out to Mormons in Utah:
Two important factors that explained the uneven geographic distribution of opportunity: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation. Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living in a place where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities. It means that unless you have a Mamaw and Papaw to make sure you stay the course, you might never make it out. It means that you don’t have people to show you by example what happens when you work hard and get an education. It means, essentially, that everything that made it possible for me, Lindsay, Gail, Jane Rex, and Aunt Wee to find some measure of happiness is missing. So I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah—with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families—wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.
For conservatives, the message may perhaps be a bitter pill to swallow. It asks for real change. We need to stop blaming Obama, the Clintons, and liberals, the biased media, for everything going wrong. And we need to actually build solutions from the ground up. If we truly believe in small government, then we acknowledge that much of the solutions to society’s problems are our responsibility. You can hear similar messages from Prager University, but it seems most conservative outlets are too busy making fun of whiny liberals to advocate real solutions and get down to work.
I would also hope that more liberals would read this book with an open mind as well. I mean, Trump getting elected was such a surprise, because liberals all thought he was a joke. And yet Trump’s base, working class white America, is there, is a big part of America still, and you’re going to have to acknowledge that they’re human too. Here’s an honest account from a “hillbilly”; listen to what he thinks the problems are!
The book really leaves me feeling grateful for the stable home I grew up in. It makes any problems I dealt with seem minor in comparison, and it makes me want to find more ways that I can build strong local communities.